Written: October 09, 2002 (post - 9/11), New York City
The past year has been enormously difficult for many of us. As we looked for comfort in hard times we may have overindulged in food, cigarettes, alcohol and drugs or lost ourselves in work. It is heartening to me to see more and more people returning to treatment at Turning Point Acupuncture reclaiming their commitment to their own health and well being.
This newsletter is intended to be helpful for those of us looking to obtain and maintain a healthful body weight and a life style that nourishes our vitality so that we can experience our life maximally.
In the United States obesity is epidemic and it is common to be overweight for one's height. This fact is largely attributed to inactivity and the availability of "fast" and sugar ladened food.
In this newsletter ideas about diet and exercise will be explored from a Western and Chinese Medical perspective.
2. Typical Western approaches to weight control:
The Western approach is simple: eat less and exercise more.
This is a reasonable approach as far as it goes, but I would add some provisos:
Not all diets are equal in their ability to nourish the body. Indeed, many diets work by purposely eliminating one food group, e.g., the no carbs or no protein diet, or focus on eating one food to the exclusion of all others. These diets work initially because the body isn't able to metabolize, i.e., to utilize the selected food for fuel, in the absence of a full spectrum of nutrients. Clearly this is not a healthy diet to provide vital energy for living.
The one diet that makes sense to me for losing weight and for maintenance is a "Zone" style diet, that is, eating 40% complex carbohydrates, 30% protein and 30% fat.This is a way of eating that avoids the dieter's feeling of deprivation by keeping blood sugar stable and thus addressing cravings and mood swings. It is also an easy to follow diet. Extensive literature and multiple websites exist describing the 40:30:30 diet. Easy to use food bars and powders are also readily available. Care should be taken as some of these have too much sugar.
Attention to the glycemic index of foods can help control blood sugar.
(Helpful Download: Glycemic Index: list of foods)
Size and Frequency of meals:
Each time we eat we fire up our metabolic machinery to utilize the food as energy. Therefore dividing our daily food intake into smaller meals (5-6 per day) eaten more frequently makes sense. The other clear advantage to "grazing" in this way is that the body is provided with a steady source of available energy. The just ingested food provides nutrients into the blood stream that can be used immediately as fuel instead of stored as fat.
With regard to exercise, burning calories, especially calories from stored fat, is the goal. Typically aerobic exercise is recommended for calorie burning. Whereas 20 minutes of aerobics three times a week is considered adequate for cardiovascular health, longer, less intense sessions are preferred for "fat burning". A daily program of exercise is best. Even a short session will raise your body's metabolism and help reset it at a higher level. So some exercise twice daily would be even more helpful! Weight training is advised for toning and because it is well established that muscle burns more calories than fat.
Slow and steady is the key here. All radical weight loss is followed by a yo yo style of weight gain. This is because the body, with its own wisdom, tries to correct what is perceived as an imbalance.
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3. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) view of overweight, diet and exercise:
I am so often asked: can acupuncture help weight loss?
The answer is clearly yes but needs explanation.
The role of the spleen/stomach:
The yin/yang pair system that deals with the digestion is the spleen/stomach (here, and in subsequent sections, we are referring to the Chinese terminology for the organ system and not the Western organ per se). The job of the spleen is to process. In TCM that means food as well as thoughts. So if we overwhelm the spleen by worrying too much or by eating too much food, the spleen becomes bogged down and functions sub-optimally. Over time that means it can't handle the load it must and so begins a cycle of poor digestion, slow metabolism and what the Chinese refer to as dampness. We recognize dampness as water retention, bloating and a sense of bogginess in the body. Chinese medicine is very helpful at this juncture since both acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine help to restore the spleen/stomach system thus improving the processing and utilization of food (and thoughts) as well as ridding the body of dampness.
Common sense would tell us that since the digestive function is already overwhelmed, warm cooked food (already at body temperature and slightly broken down by heating) is more easily assimilated. Similarly, so as not to overload the spleen, one would eat small meals.
Some herbal formulas helpful for the spleen are Health Concerns Astra 18 Diet Fuel, Astra Diet Tea and the classic formula Six Gentlemen (liu jun zi tang).
The role of the liver:
There is another critically important way that acupuncture can help weight control, especially in these difficult days.
As I stated earlier, many people have turned to food for comfort. Some people are anxiety eaters. Acupuncture is helpful here because of its centering, calming and balancing function. Stress is handled by the liver organ system. The job of the liver is to harmonize and smooth. When we are anxious or stressed the liver energy becomes constrained and we become blocked. On the level of digestion this can manifest as "holding on". We then hold on to extra fat, fluid and stool. Acupuncture and herbs that help the liver can help restore the natural flow. Here I would point out that acupuncture, for the reasons just discussed, has been used for decades to treat addictions of all kinds: drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and compulsive behavior.
An herbal formula that we commonly use for harmonizing the liver is Health Concerns Ease Plus (xiao yan wan, frequently translated as Free and Easy Wanderer).
For another look at how stress can affect the internal organ systems see:
The role of the kidney:
If we have been stressed for a long time or use a lot of caffeine, our kidney organ system can be depleted. When this happens we can also have trouble with water balance in the body. The kidney is like a pilot light on a stove; if it is weak nothing can be well cooked. Applied to this topic that would mean we could not digest food well.
Many Chinese herbal combinations, e.g., Health Concerns Astra Essence (zuo gui wan/you gui yin), are formulated to address this deficiency.
Chinese dietary recommendations summarized:
Eat small meals.
Eat warmed cooked food
Avoid cold beverages and all frozen and iced food.
Avoid fried fatty foods.
Avoid alcohol (injures the liver)
Avoid caffeine (injures the kidney)
Avoid simple sugars (injure the spleen)
TCM exercise recommendations for weight loss are very different than in the Western view. The Chinese see the overweight individual with spleen dampness (and possibly, kidney deficiency and constrained liver Qi, etc.) as in a deficient, low energy state. Such an individual would not benefit from vigorous exercise. Instead more gentle forms of movement are encouraged: walking (especially out of doors), swimming for pleasure and Qi Gong. Daily practice is essential. For Qi Gong instruction see Nan Lu's book A Natural Guide to Weight Loss That Lasts available on Amazon or the video Sheng Zhen Healing Qigong with Master Li Jun Feng.
4. Integrating the two view points:
As we have seen there are some contradictions in the two views.
I recommend that we individualize the treatment and use the wisdom of each system as is appropriate.
In general the plan would include:
Acupuncture to balance Qi, strengthen the internal organ systems and remove Qi blockages.
Chinese herbs as indicated (to treat spleen, and/or liver and kidney)
40:30:30 diet but using more warm, cooked foods
Avoiding substances injurious to internal organ systems (caffeine, alcohol, sugar)
Gentle daily exercise
Other stress reduction modalities
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